How I made an animated short-film alone during COVID-19

How I made an animated short-film alone during COVID-19

From a dream to an idea. From and idea to a dream come true.

Before I bring you with me to this journey you should probably take 6 minutes and 16 seconds to watch the film.

Of course you’re free to do this whenever and however you desire but for an optimal experience I would recommend you to watch it on a big screen with good sound quality and turn on 4K in the YouTube settings.
Even better if you have kids. Get comfortable with them on the sofa and watch it together. Oh and don’t forget to come back!

Alright, did you watch it?
I will just pretend you did and you came back here for the rest of the story. So welcome back and I hope you liked Tikka!

Jacques_Prevert_Paroles

Getting inspired

It’s funny how inspiration is uncontrollable and sneaky. Just like a cat, it hides whenever you are actively looking for it but as soon as you’re fully relaxed and not thinking about anything in the world… it jumps out of nowhere and bites you. Cat owners will precisely know what I mean.

On a lovely evening of winter, I found the inspiration for my film while reading a book. It is called “Paroles” by Jacques Prévert and I should thank my sister Stéphanie for this great birthday gift. Anyway, the book is a compilation of poems and one of them is called “Chanson des escargots qui vont à l’enterrement” (in English “Song of the snails going to a funeral”).

To keep it short it’s a poem about two snails going to the funeral of a dead leaf. It is Autumn when they depart but they are traveling so slowly that it’s already Spring when they arrive and all the leaves came back to life. I found that poem truly charming and when I woke up in the morning I got bitten by inspiration, a story was taking shape in my mind. Of course it was out of the question to copy the poem but it gave me the necessary material to build my own story, something about friendship, the seasons and the passing of time.

For weeks I kept thinking about it, changing elements here and there, working on the characters, the arcs of the story and one day I felt confident enough to start. Tikka was born.

Risking it all

I have to mention that in 2018 I already tried making a short-film, it was called Chicko and I wrote something on Medium about it. Spoiler alert, I did not make it and if you are interested in knowing why I invite you to take a look at the article.

chicko short film banner

The benefit of failing is that you learn from your mistakes and gain knowledge. So this time around I knew exactly what I had to do in order to bring this project to completion:

  • Quitting my job
  • Saving enough money to finance the project
  • Setting up a production pipeline
  • Fixing a realistic deadline

You may find it crazy but personally I don’t regret my decision. I used to work as a Lead Product Designer specialized in Design Systems and I reached a point where I simply didn’t have much motivation anymore. Year after year I had the feeling of being crushed by this corporate environment and losing all my creativity. Plus, from the moment I would wake up in the morning, to the time I would go back to sleep I only had one thing in mind ; making my own animated film. And to be honest I’m not the kind of person who gives up that easily, so when I failed making Chicko in 2018 I knew I would try again one day.

In addition, a global pandemic suddenly hits the world, there are no more job offers and everyone has to stay at home. Is this a sign? I don’t know but I made my decision and in September 2020 I did it. I quit my job and I risked it all to create my first animated short-film.

The story and the characters

I’m a serious fan of Disney Animation and Pixar. In addition to their films I’m truly interested in what happens behind the scenes. If that’s also something you enjoy then I highly recommend you to take a look at the show “Inside Pixar” available on Disney+ and for the true nerds the course “Pixar in a box” available for free on Khan Academy.

Above anything else, if there is one thing I’ve learnt from these resources it’s the importance of having a great story with good characters. Of course it’s important to have good graphics, proper lighting and clean animations, etc ; but nothing comes close to a strong, captivating and emotional story.

I spent about a month working on the script and the storyboard, and … Oh, boy! It’s hard and it’s no surprise there are such jobs as Writer, Co-Writer and Storyboard Artists. It takes skills, knowledge and experience to bring a story together, to make it easy to understand and captivating without any flaws.

Of course the story of Tikka is far from being perfect but I tried my best. After countless iterations working on the script, the storyboard and the character design I felt like I had something solid to start the project.

tikka sketch T pose
tikka sketch facial expression
tikka up eating nut

Turning ideas into images

Even if you’re not familiar with 3D I’m sure you probably heard about the terms “CG” and “CGI” ; it stands for “Computer Graphics” and “Computer-Generated Imagery”.

It sounds a bit scary but it simply means using a computer to create images/frames. Generate 24 frames and you get a film of one second, generate 9,024 frames and you get a film of 6 minutes and 16 seconds.

Making a short film like I did or a feature film of 90 minutes is pretty much the same, the only differences are the time it takes, the amount of people and the resources you need to complete the project, but the process and the pipeline is exactly the same.

Without getting into too much details it basically looks like this:

Script > Storyboard > Modeling > Texturing > Rigging > Layout > Animation > Lighting > Rendering > Post-production

If you are curious Dreamworks Animation Studios made a really good video where they explain each step of the process.

This part was the longest and probably the most difficult. When you are part of a team everyone has their own specialty and people just share their work from one team to another until the process is complete, but when you are alone it’s a different story.

A one-man team

Have you ever had the courage to stay at the end of a film and watch this endless list of names rolling down to infinity and called the closing credits?

The reason why there are so many names is perfectly normal, making a film is incredibly hard and it requires a lot of work. If you watched Tikka you probably thought:

6 minutes is nothing! And it took him 8 months to do that?

Yes, 8 months. And trust me, I could have easily spent 12 to 15 months working on it but at some point you have to know when to stop. Of course I could have asked for help or hired someone to work with me, and I thought about it but eventually decided not to do it.
I wanted to use this project as a way to challenge myself, to develop my film-making skills and knowledge. And it worked!

Believe it or not but these 8 months have been the most productive and interesting months of my life (in terms of work). Every single day I was learning something new, developing my skills and this feeling is simply incredible. I did not only learn about 3D but also about organization, planning and self-questioning.

tikka script
tikka_pipeline

I think I can describe myself as being an organized person when it comes to work, but for that kind of project you have to bring your organization and planning skills to another level. It may seem very boring and useless but in my opinion it is critical in order to bring such a large project to completion. You can use fancy software to monitor your progress and keep track of everything but in my case Google Docs and Spreadsheet did the job.

The power of collaboration

I mentioned earlier that I made everything on my own. To be honest it was a bit of a lie, I did ask for help in two specific cases.

Feedback

It doesn’t matter if you are a film-maker or not, this advice applies to literally everyone and every project:

Ask for feedback.

Tikka is far from being perfect but the film improved so much thanks to the feedback I received. A few days after I started working on the film I created a “Feedback chat group” with some of my friends that I consider have a good eye for details, and the feedback they gave me was invaluable.

When you work alone for too long you have a tendency to praise your own work, your opinion becomes biased because of the amount of hours, sweat and tears you spend on your own creation. Your brain tricks you and makes you think your work is amazing but most of the time it’s not, and you need the critics of other people to take you out of this mental trap.

Images are more powerful than words so just look at the evolution of the character Bloo from my early tests on the left to the final version on the right.

bloo character design

We can all agree the first version is garbage and of course I would have never released the film with this design, but somehow at that time when I made it I was proud of my work. It is thanks to the feedback I received that the character evolved to what it is today. This evolution also applied to other elements of the film like the character of Tikka, the props and the environments.

Even though I love Blender I’ve decided to use another software for the Texturing and I chose “Substance Painter”. It is not a free software but it is absolutely outstanding. The Texturing with Substance Painter is really fun and the results you get are incredible.

Sound design

If there is one domain where I have absolutely no skills and expertise it’s sound design. However, I do know the importance of good sound.
In order to keep the attention of the viewers it is critical to nail a few basic things like sound effects and the placement/transition of music.

A squirrel who becomes friends with a leaf, it simply doesn't exist and yet when you watch it you believe it, maybe the story even triggered some emotions in you. But why? Because the sound and the music tricked your brain making you feel like it is really happening.

So once all the visual aspect of the film was done I contacted Stu Rolls, a professional Sound Designer and he did a fantastic job bringing the characters and the environment to life. I couldn’t hold my tears the first time I watched the film with sound effects and the music.

tikka film poster

Release day

By the end of April 2021 and after 8 months of hard work the rendering was done, post-production was finished and the sound design completed. I managed to respect my schedule, the film was ready to be shared with the world but I decided not to release it just yet.

It took me some time to realize it but at some point I figured I couldn’t go back to my previous life. Sure, it was an ambitious and difficult project but every day was different, full of excitement and I never had such a feeling in my previous jobs. Making this film helped me understand:

This is what I want to do!

I want to tell stories, I want to create characters and I want to bring them to life. However, I had to answer two questions:

  1. How can I keep on making more films of better quality?
  2. How can I make a living with films available for free on YouTube?

Starting a business

In February 2021, I was still working on the animation of the squirrel and I showed it to a friend when she told me this:

Oh it’s so cute! Why don’t you make a plush for children?

It clicked in my mind! Why not create and sell products for children in relation to the film? However, I didn’t want to create some random and cheap toys coming from China, my idea was to make something useful for parents and educational for kids.

At that point I didn’t know exactly what the product would be and how to do it but I figured I needed to have my own business. Opening a company is not that simple and it takes time but finally in June 2021 Short & Petit was officially registered.

short_&_petit_logo

A children’s book

I kept on brainstorming for a few weeks. What kind of product can be produced in Europe and remain affordable while offering an educational value to children?

This entire project started with it, I got inspired by it and of course the answer was: A book!

So as soon as the film was done I immediately started working on this new task. Writing it down, working with the translators, making the illustrations, designing the layout, finding the printers, etc ; It wasn’t as simple as I expected but by the end of May 2021 it was done.

tikka book children

What’s next?

The primary goal is to share the film and the book as widely as possible. The more people watch the film and the more parents buy the book, the higher the chances are for Short & Petit to move forward.

Additionally, I’m working on a more traditional way to distribute the book and hopefully starting in September 2021 it could be available in bookstores (work in progress). If everything works out, the plan is to release a new short-film every year with a better story and improved quality overall.

Tikka is not perfect, it could be better visually, the characters could benefit from some more work and the animation could be more polished… but I’m not Pixar. I’m just a guy who made his first animated short-film alone in the middle of a global pandemic and I’m proud of the result. Who knows, this entire project may fail but you know what?

I’d rather live with failures than living with regrets. And to be honest I’m not the kind of person who gives up that easily ; I’m sure I will try again one day!
tikka_bloo_short_film

Thank you for your time!

If you enjoyed watching Tikka please consider sharing it around you. If you are a parent and have kids between 2–8 years old I can definitely recommend you to take a look at the book, I’m sure your little ones will fall in love with the story.
It’s available in English, French, German, Spanish and Danish on www.shortandpetit.com

Do you want to talk about Product Design, 3D animatiom or any other exciting projects? Just drop me a line at this email address: contact.ferrere@gmail.com

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